So The Last of Us. Again. If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s a survival horror based on the concept of a human-infecting cordyceps fungus. It follows a jaded, aging smuggler (Joel) who lost his daughter in the early stages of the apocalypse, as well as a spunky, foul-mouthed teenage girl (Ellie), who is somehow immune to the infection. They fight their way through the ruins of the United States, killing fungus-infected zombies and bandits as they go. The game has incredible character development, revealing both the characters’ backstories and advancing their relationship together, while simultaneously engaging the player in an immersive and occasionally terrifying gaming experience.
As absolutely lovely as I believe the game to have been, it could have been better in a couple of easily identified ways. First, I understand the narrative potential of betrayal and loss, the depressing/exhilarating sense of ultimate loneliness, and genuinely difficult choices about the lives and deaths of other people. That being said, the game felt rather tropetastic as I watched all the relevant persons of color die before the end of this playable horror film. But it’s a survival horror; dying is what people do. They were complex enough characters, even if they enjoyed rather limited screentime.
What I want is more time with Ellie. Ellie shines as a character, transforming from bold yet frightened to quiet and confident as her experiences darken. She doesn’t lose any emotion over the course of the narrative either, her relationship with Joel transforming from a standoffish “I-made-a-promise” interaction to a rather touching father-daughter analogy which propels the final actions of the story. She takes charge of her own survival, saving Joel from almost certain death and offering herself up as prey to protect him. She’s possessed of a sense of debt, and duty to the fallen, and on top of it all is pretty good with a knife. Ellie, for her part, escapes the trap of simply being an object, a miracle cure, with no agency of her own. She has a sense of purpose and a strong survival instinct, and she’s not above killing dozens of people to get the job done.
The chapters of the game where you are in control of her are more difficult, and lots of fun, especially because of your more limited recourse to firearms. They reinforce the game’s emphasis on stealth, and surviving against hunters and the infected with little more than a knife and a bow-and-arrow does a lot to help the player understand what it must mean to be fourteen in a world where one must murder to survive. While I understand that the game is relatively short, which I think contributes to its narrative power, and what game there is is masterfully crafted, more Ellie-Time would have been better. It’s a simple equation, really. Ellie + Time = Great. More Ellie + Time = Greater. Who doesn’t want more great? She’s a co-protagonist to the story, but not to the gameplay, and that’s just not giving a great character her due.
The lesson here is that we don’t get enough complex, compelling female protagonists. Leave “strong female lead” at the door. It’s old hat, and is so deep in the mimetic swamp of its own trope that it has become reductionist and pejorative. Strong should no longer (and should have never been, frankly) considered a remarkable or surprising character trait for a female protagonist, so let’s put it down. While I’m going off, Call of Duty: Ghosts was announced recently with the big reveal of playable female soldiers, to some jubilation and a fair amount of pause. A not uncommon reaction: “What took so bloody long?”
This isn’t a first, by any stretch of the imagination, but that is a fair question? Why, in this environment of apparently limitless gaming potential, haven’t we seen any female COD playable leads? It’s about damn time, considering that soon enough women will be joining the ranks of Navy SEALS and Army Rangers. So what’s going on? According to Yale Miller, senior producer on Ghosts:
I think the character customization added that…there’s so much work.“Character customization is not as easy as, ‘Oh, we just did character customization.’ There’s a ton of engine and backend work to be done. If you think about it, you have the same texture in the game over and over again, if you had that and the game was all these walls made of the same texture. You only need that texture once, right? But when you’ve got all these different textures, all these different models, it’s a whole lot of back end work that’s needed to be done.
That reason doesn’t fly with me because it sounds an awful lot like “We didn’t include female leads because it’s haaaaard.” Especially after Executive Producer Mark Rubin acknowledged, “Honestly, adding female soldiers to character customization wasn’t about trying to lure more people into the game. It was actually just about acknowledging the people who already play our game.”
Exactly. I won’t get on my feet for this one, because you shouldn’t need to be congratulated for doing what both human decency and your profit margins suggest is the right thing to do. Especially when Gears of War and Halo, among others, did it first. We don’t give the entire section of our community that is female or that even just wants to not always play a dude their due. Somehow the big heads behind COD thought that a dog was a more pressing inclusion than a playable female character.
Goddamnit. Games, especially those with online play functions, are supposed to be about community, about inclusion, about fun. I’ll refrain from saying “How many times do I have to say this?” because I understand that what I think isn’t that important, but how many people must feel exactly the same way? In the end, the peeps over at Infinity Ward get a handshake for this, but that’s all they get from me.
Female protagonists are finally starting to be fully fleshed out and engaging characters often enough to escape tokenism, but we’ve left it for too long and some of the best games available are still getting it wrong. That’s not to say that big improvements haven’t been made, or that I’m looking for something to argue about. I believe that both games and narratives are improved by genuine and effective inclusion. It gives creative professionals more potential material to work with, more avenues to explore, and wider audiences to which they can appeal. I think that we’ve seen great strides in that area in recent years, and I believe that it is because we’ve made it clear that a significant market share wants this inclusion, and is willing to fork over actual dollars to see it. It follows then, that if we want to see more, and we do, that we’ve got to keeping making our voices heard on this particular issue, hold creatives accountable when they don’t get the job done, and reward decisions that do.